Thieu’s Prisoners

Hostages of War: Saigon’s Political Prisoners

by Holmes Brown and Don Luce
Indochina Mobil Education Project, Washington, D.C., 112 pp., $1.50 (paper)

Rescapés des Bagnes de Saigon: Nous Accusons

by Jean-Pierre Debris and André Menras
Les Editeurs Français Réunis, 224 pp., 17 F

Not since I started writing about Vietnam in 1955 have I been confronted with a task as urgent and at the same time as complex as the subject of political prisoners in South Vietnam. Both books under review are rich in statistics, case histories, authentic documents, and personal experiences, but they contain by no means all the existing material dealing with the distressing and politically explosive question of what has happened and is still going to happen to the men, women, and children who fill the prisons, detention camps, interrogation centers, and the many local jails in the territories of South Vietnam controlled by the regime of Nguyen Van Thieu. I also have read three brochures on the subject published in Paris (two in French and one in English), and more than a dozen copies of letters and appeals by prominent Vietnamese leaders and humanitarian organizations addressed to the International Commission of Control and Supervision and to the Four Party Joint Military Commission.

In addition, I have three letters addressed to Pope Paul VI, one signed by eight Catholic priests, one by the Reverend Father Chan Tin, vice chairman of a committee for prison reform in South Vietnam, and one containing the signatures of fifty Buddhist women whose husbands or sons or daughters are in prison, some of them arrested more than ten years ago. These letters probably reached the Vatican before President Thieu was received by the Pope on April 9.

The question of how many political prisoners are being kept in the jails and detention camps of South Vietnam has been passionately discussed for many months, not only in Saigon but especially in France, yet the press has not brought it to the attention of Americans. Depending on whom you ask, the answer you get is that their number is somewhere between zero and 200,000. (An exception is the figure of 400,000, which Le Monde on March 16, 1973, claims to have received from a deputy of the South Vietnamese lower house.) President Thieu, in answer to the Pope’s question, repeated what a government spokesman in Saigon had already stated in early March: there were no political prisoners in South Vietnam, only criminals—common law criminals and communist criminals, i.e., persons who had thrown bombs or committed other acts of terror. According to a report from Rome in the Saigon Post of April 10, Thieu gave the number of these criminals as 8,081. (Previously he had spoken of 20,000 common criminals and 5,000 political prisoners, the latter, according to him, all communists.)

Not only the four authors of the two books under review but also Amnesty International, the Overseas Buddhist Association, and the Fellowship of Reconciliation estimate the number of political prisoners in South Vietnam to be at least 200,000. The documents I received and the interviews I had, during my recent visit of ten days to Saigon, with many knowledgeable people about the political situation made it clear to me that the official statistics are clumsy lies. But although I am convinced that a figure exceeding 200,000 is close to the truth, nothing I learned in my investigations enables me to supply uncontestable proof for such a statement. True, this figure has been given by others whom Luce and Brown cite in their book, including The New York Times, which reported on September 7, 1972, that Ngo Cong Duc, a former legislator and former president of the Saigon Publishers Association, put the number of political prisoners in South Vietnam at 200,000. (A news release of the Canadian Anglican News Service even mentions a total of more than 240,000 political prisoners.)

There are many reasons why these figures cannot be precisely substantiated. Nobody knows exactly how many prisons, provincial detention camps, interrogation centers, and jails at police stations and military compounds exist in South Vietnam. No one, not even a commission of senators or members of the lower house, is permitted to conduct an independent investigation (let alone a foreigner like myself, whose opposition to the Thieu regime is well known to Saigon officials). Nevertheless, the documents in my possession, the material in both books under review and in the three brochures, and my interviews with people concerned with Vietnamese politics lead me to agree with the authors of Hostages of War and Nous Accusons, who claim that the number of political prisoners held by the Saigon government exceeds 200,000.

I interviewed more than twenty prominent people, including several officials, four Buddhist senators, two Catholic members of the lower house, six professors, two lawyers, half a dozen Vietnamese journalists, and four foreign correspondents. Four had been members of the various Saigon governments before the election of Nguyen Van Thieu as president. Three of the professors were deans of their respective faculties; one, the Reverend Father Chan Tin, is the acting head of the Catholic-sponsored committee for prison reform in South Vietnam, and still another, the prominent Buddhist Senator Tran Quang Thuan, heads a commission working for the release of all political prisoners.

Two American correspondents told me they estimated there were 70,000 political prisoners. But I learned nothing from any American working for the embassy, the USAID, or the USIS. Except for one high official of the embassy, who gave me the ridiculous figure of 1,000 political prisoners, American officials avoided discussing the subject with me, although they could not have failed to know what I learned after only a few days in Saigon from my various Vietnamese informants about the number of inmates in the larger prisons of South Vietnam.

There are, so far as I know, between 9,000 and 10,000 prisoners at Con Son (the island formerly called Poulo Condore), between 8,000 and 10,000 in the Chi Hoa prison of Saigon, between 6,000 and 8,000 in the Thu Duc prison, between 6,000 and 10,000 in the Than Hiep prison, etc. These figures do not include the prisoners in the forty-six or sixty (depending on whom you ask) provincial detention centers, each holding between 1,000 and 3,000 people. In addition to the larger prisons, there are, I was told, anywhere between 400 and 800 smaller district prisons where people are being kept, some only for a few months but others, as is the case also in the provincial detention centers, for one or several terms of two years.

How many prisons and inmates there are is a “state secret.” Still the senators, professors, lawyers, and journalists I interviewed were able from the information smuggled out of prisons or obtained from released prisoners to draw more or less informed conclusions about the number of prisons and of persons jailed throughout South Vietnam. Some of these people did not have as much information as was available to others who were more concerned with this political problem. This explains why the figures I was given about the total prison population, all of them by opponents of both the communists and the Thieu regime, varied from 50,000 to 200,000, the latter figure considered by most as closer to the truth. Significantly, the letter written to the Pope by eight Catholic priests on April 4, 1973, states: “In spite of what the spokesmen of the Saigon government say, hundreds of thousands of political prisoners still fill the numerous prisons in South Vietnam.”

It was as difficult to obtain even an approximate estimate of the percentage of real communists and their sympathizers among the persons kept in the jails and camps of South Vietnam as it was to determine the precise number of prisons and their inmates. Most of those I questioned tended to consider that most political prisoners are noncommunist opponents of the Thieu dictatorship. A former Minister of Foreign Affairs, Senator Vu Van Mau, who for years has vainly tried to obtain the release of 1,400 Buddhists arrested in 1966, estimates that 70 percent of those imprisoned under the so-called Phoenix Program had nothing whatever to do with the armed and propaganda activities of the National Liberation Front. Don Luce, co-author of Hostages of War, who spent thirteen years in Vietnam with the International Voluntary Services and as a Research Associate of the World Council of Churches, said in a taped statement for a press conference held by Amnesty International on April 30:

There are more than 200,000 political prisoners in the jails of the Saigon government. Buddhist monks, Catholic priests, teachers, writers, students, lawyers, laborers, and farmers. They include old people, women, children, and the sick.*

(Included in the officially admitted figure of 9,850 persons in the Con Son island prison, euphemistically called a re-education center, are 1,058 women.)

Among the political prisoners there are no doubt a great many communists and Viet Cong sympathizers. But as Don Luce and Holmes Brown document, it does not take much expression of discontent for any person to be labeled a communist and sentenced to many years of hard labor. Article 2 of Decree Law 93/SL/CT states that “any person who commits acts of propaganda for any incitement to neutralism shall be considered as pro-Communist Neutralist.” Another article of the many Decree Laws through which the Constitution is in effect abolished says that any person who commits any act to undermine the anticommunist spirit of the country shall be sentenced to hard labor. These sentences may be for two, five, or even twenty years, or, in many cases, solitary confinement with hard labor for life.

The figure of 200,000 political prisoners, probably correct up to the spring of 1972, may well have increased considerably after the start of the communist offensive in April, 1972. Time reported on July 10, 1972, that arrests were continuing at a rate of 14,000 people per month. The Washington Post of November 10, 1972, carried the following item: “On November 10, 1972, Hoang Duc Nha, President Thieu’s closest adviser, reportedly told a group of Vietnamese publishers that 40,000 communist agents had been arrested throughout the country in the past few weeks.” Since it is most unlikely that the regime has released any of these alleged 40,000 communist agents, Thieu’s statement to the Pope that there are a mere 8,081 prisoners in South Vietnam was not only a brazen but also a stupid lie.

These arrests by no means stopped after the cease-fire agreement was signed on January 27, as anyone in Saigon who is concerned with the problem can confirm. According to article 8 (c) of the Paris Agreement, the political prisoners should have been freed within ninety days after the signing of the Agreement. In letters addressed to the Pope and to the Chairman of the International Commission of Control and Supervision, the Reverend Father Chan Tin wrote, on behalf of the committee of prison reform in South Vietnam:

We are saddened by our observation that the government of the Republic of Vietnam not only refuses to release political prisoners but also is arresting more people for political reasons and is treating more and more brutally political prisoners presently detained.

According to Father Chan Tin, one of the most courageous men I have met among the Vietnamese, “the majority of the political prisoners were arrested although they did not participate directly with either party of the Agreement”—which means that they are noncommunist people opposed to the Thieu regime.

Father Chan Tin also describes in his letters the efforts of the Saigon government to reduce the number of political prisoners. “The Government of the Republic of Vietnam,” he writes, “is doing everything possible to fake judiciary files, changing political prisoners into common criminals.” A few prisoners have been released from Con Son since the signing of the Agreement, but these were invalids, crippled by torture, as Father Chan Tin states.

The Government of the Republic of Vietnam released these invalid prisoners mainly because the government is afraid that the International Commission and the Vietnam and world public will witness their invalid body suffered as the result of a brutal prison system if they are released in the presence of the International Commission…. These people are being sent back to many places on the mainland of South Vietnam and many are still detained by provincial authorities.

The treatment of the prisoners, the conditions of prison life, and the inhumane tortures most prisoners suffered at the hands of their jailers are the main preoccupation of the two Americans and the two Frenchmen who so far have written extensively about this sad and revolting subject. Father Chan Tin wrote,

Savage tortures happen every day in interrogation centers and prisons. Political prisoners are being maltreated severely, are living in narrow, dark, dirty cells, sometimes shackled day and night. Their daily food ration is reduced in such a way as to destroy completely their body.

In his letter to the Pope of April 4, 1973, Father Chan Tin adds several more horrifying details.

During the last few months, political prisoners are put in the same cells with prisoners who suffer severe contagious diseases. These prisoners, weakened by malnutrition and unhygienic conditions, easily catch these contagious diseases. This is one way to slowly kill political prisoners.

Many others die as the result of torture.

Although Jean-Pierre Debris and André Menras worked for two years in South Vietnam as teachers on a French government exchange program and then spent two and a half years in prison, where they not only witnessed but also suffered the brutal treatment to which prisoners are routinely subjected, I consider the work of Don Luce and Holmes Brown, which has been ignored by the press, of greater importance for Americans. The concerns of Brown and Luce are primarily humanitarian, although their revelations inevitably become political, for they not only condemn the Thieu regime but also provide evidence of American indifference to and responsibility for the injustices and brutalities which a great many South Vietnamese are made to suffer. Their descriptions are comprehensive and based on impeccable sources; indeed their position could be called objective, if such a term were at all applicable to a book dealing with crimes against humanity.

In contrast to them, Debris and Menras openly side with the National Liberation Front, no doubt out of a deep conviction that only an end of the war through victory by the Front will also end the suffering they have witnessed and, by a courageous act of doubtful political value, brought on themselves. They distributed thousands of leaflets asking for peace, for the withdrawal of all American troops, and for the overthrow of the Thieu regime. Furthermore, they climbed the huge and ugly monument of two soldiers facing the parliament building in the center of Saigon and unfolded the flag of the Viet Cong. It took the police half an hour to drag them off the high statue. They were beaten until many onlookers thought they were dead and then carried off in a jeep.

Their book describes what they saw and suffered during two and a half years in the Chi Hoa prison of Saigon, until they were released on December 29, 1972: the crowded cells, the starvation diet, the total lack of medical care, the constant beatings by “guards” recruited from the worst types of common criminals, the rape of young girls after having been maltreated, and the numerous forms of torture, many of which cripple the body of the victim for life. The same tortures are also vividly described by Luce and Brown. The most common forms are water torture of various kinds and the use of electrodes on the most sensitive parts of the body—earlobes, tongue, and genitals.

In a press release in English during a lecture tour in the United States, André Menras gives the following description of one form of water torture, called the “absorption method”:

This is the most common method, usually employed just after the evening meal (a bowl of rice). The victim is placed on his back on a bench, his hands and feet solidly tied (during the session which I was forced to attend, the police used rags from a Free Vietnam flag). Dirty water-soaked rags or pieces of burlap are spread over the victim’s face, so that he suffocates. The torturers then pour soapy water on the rags. In order to breathe, the victim must swallow an appreciable amount of this liquid through the mouth and nose. After several minutes, the victim’s stomach is filled with soapy water. The police then beat on his stomach and ribs, causing the victim to vomit the water and whatever he has eaten. He will be unable to eat food for a week following this torture.

In his taped statement at the press conference of Amnesty International, Don Luce gave a variation of the water torture:

The nose is squeezed shut and a large quantity of soapy water is pumped into the victim’s stomach. Then the pressure is released from the nostrils, the mouth gagged, and the water forced out through the nose by pounding the victim’s stomach.

Other methods of torture (in addition to frequent beatings of the head, footsoles, knees, and neck with heavy clubs) include pushing a chopstick into the victim’s ears, which causes deafness and sometimes death, forcing bamboo slivers or pins under the fingernails, and pushing bottles into the vaginas of women, often forcing the husband of the victim to watch, in order to get information or a confession from him, which then serves as evidence for sentencing him in court. Putting out cigarettes in the victim’s genitals, cracking the skull by pushing the head against a wall, and suspending the prisoners from the ceiling by their hands, tied together behind their backs, are other commonly practiced forms of torture.

During 1972, especially vicious action by the Saigon police was taken against students known to have or suspected of having opposed the Thieu regime. Luce and Brown cite a letter smuggled out of Chi Hoa prison dated October 11, 1972, which describes the torture suffered by the student leader Le Cong Giau during his interrogation:

Le Cong Giau is a science student and former secretary general of the executive committee of the Union of Saigon Students (1965-1966). Giau was arrested on August 5, 1972, by the Saigon municipal police when leaving class to return home. The same night, August 5, Giau was taken handcuffed and blindfolded to the office of the director of the interrogation center (Mr. Duong Van Chau); also present were lieutenant colonel Nghia, assistant director in charge of the special police, and captain Mai, head of the interrogation, as well as ten interrogation officers. He was immediately subjected to torture and interrogation and forced to admit to having participated in NLF organizations. Giau protested vigorously against the accusations. Nevertheless, he has continuously suffered all manners of torture: persistent beating with a club on the head, shoulders, hands, thighs, knees, legs, and feet. Burning cigarettes were placed on his nipples, navel, and penis; pins were driven into the end of his fingers. His fingernails and toenails were torn out (this torture was carried out by second lieutenant Duong).

A large quantity of soapy water was forced through his nostrils and mouth until he fainted; then he was kicked in the stomach to force the water out (this torture was carried out, once again, by second lieutenant Duong). His hands were tied behind his back, and he was suspended by his feet and beaten savagely with clubs…. Chopsticks were forced up his rectum (torture carried out by Ngoc). The torture was applied from 10 PM to 4 AM. After each session Giau was carried on a board to cell number 2. This particular treatment was imposed every day from the first week of his detention. He is now so weak that he cannot move any of his limbs, and he can only eat by being fed spoonfuls of soup by another prisoner. With only a few days break, this interrogation and torture has been carried out for two months. During the week of August 19 to 26, Giau was taken away and hidden in a closed truck so that he could not be seen by an International Red Cross inspection team.

The letter goes on to say that Giau is now unable to speak. “He vomits blood continually; his clothing is so saturated with blood that the cell is filled with an intolerable stench which suffocates even the guards…. Even in this condition, he has been placed in solitary confinement without being allowed to receive the supplies and medicines brought by his family and friends.” The letter concludes: “We wish to alert public opinion to the imminent death of Le Cong Giau.”

I will only add that thousands of others shared the fate of Le Cong Giau, especially those who were sent to the island prison of Con Son, whose “tiger cages” Don Luce brought to the attention of the world in 1970, and which his and Holmes Brown’s book describes at length and in heartbreaking detail. However, Luce’s revelation of the atrocious prison conditions on Con Son brought about no improvement for the approximately 10,000 victims still held there, in prisons constructed by the French and notorious even fifty years ago. To quote Luce and Brown once more, from Appendix B of their book:

Following the international outcry against the tiger cages, the Saigon government announced they were going to do away with them. But two months later, they ordered the political prisoners who were not paralyzed from previous shackling to build new ones as a “self-help” project. The prisoners refused, were put into shackles and on January 7, 1971, the United States Department of Navy gave a $400,000 contract to Raymond, Morrison, Knudson-Brown, Root and Jones to build 384 new “isolation cells” to replace the tiger cages.

These new ‘isolation cells,’ ” wrote Colgate S. Prentice of the US Department of State, “are six feet by eight feet—two square feet smaller than the former Tiger Cages.” (On page 43 of their book, Luce and Brown reproduce a copy of the contract for the new tiger cages funded by the US Navy.)

This raises the question, dealt with in both books, of the extent to which the United States, by the actions of its armed forces and by Washington’s support of the Thieu regime, must share responsibility for the policy that keeps vast numbers of the Vietnamese people in prisons and detention camps, and for the treatment they suffer. It is inconceivable that the Americans who decide our Vietnam policy in Washington or who are in official positions in Saigon can be ignorant of the manner in which the Thieu regime fights its opponents, whether they are communists or not. Thousands of people now in prison were seized in the course of military operations by American troops, and handed over to the Vietnamese for interrogation, people often merely suspected of supporting the NLF. American officers, if not actually taking part, frequently witnessed without protesting the brutal treatment of men and women of whom they could not possibly know whether they were “guilty” or not of supporting the enemy.

But aside from this, I would emphasize that South Vietnam’s national police forces, increased since 1963 from 16,000 to 120,000, are paid for their dirty work by the American taxpayer. Moreover, anyone who believes that Washington is uninformed about the number of innocent people imprisoned, about the inhuman prison conditions and the savage tortures practiced in interrogation centers, prisons, and detention camps, has only to read the letters that appear in Appendices X, Y, and Z of Hostages of War to convince himself that the men in the highest offices of our administration are fully aware of the manner in which the Saigon government fights its opponents, and the degree of American responsibility for the crimes of the Thieu regime.

The first letter is addressed to Vice President Agnew on the occasion of his visit to Vietnam in August, 1970, and is signed by Mrs. Ngo Ba Than, who is now in prison; the second was sent to President Nixon on April 12, 1971, and it contained 117 signatures of relatives of political prisoners; and the third went to the chairman of the United States Senate Foreign Relations Committee, dated May 8, 1971, and is signed by Professor Nguyen Van Trung, chairman of the committee for prison reform in South Vietnam.

Since so little is known about the fate of hundreds of thousands who have gone through or still remain in the prisons of South Vietnam, the value of the work of men like Don Luce can hardly be overestimated. To reveal lies emanating from Saigon on the subject of civilian political prisoners in South Vietnam, and to counter the deplorable near silence of the American press about the fate of these men, women, and children, merit support of everyone concerned with the human suffering that continues without reprieve. As of this writing, fewer than one thousand persons have been released, most of them communists who were handed over to the Viet Cong authorities in the first prisoner exchange.

Even those who do not share the political views of Debris and Menras and consider the action that made them victims of the Thieu regime’s brutality as politically naïve, must welcome their revelations and hope that their book becomes available in English. Like Luce and Brown, they too show that both the International Red Cross and the Americans who were permitted to inspect prisons and interview inmates failed to penetrate the wall of lies surrounding the various measures used by the prison authorities to hide the truth about the prisoners’ treatment. One of these measures was to instill fear in the prisoners that they would be tortured again, and more severely, if they made complaints.

But even if complaints were voiced, as was the case when a delegation of the International Red Cross visited the Chi Hoa prison where Debris and Menras were held, the delegation’s report was more a defense of the prison authorities than a reflection of what they were told by the two Frenchmen. Debris and Menras had just ended a twenty-seven-day hunger strike and each had lost over forty pounds. They were understandably surprised when they learned from their families after their release that the Red Cross report stated, without referring to the treatment they had been subjected to, that “the appearance of the two prisoners is good; they are well nourished and enjoy good health.”

When pressure from France induced the Saigon authorities to decide that Debris and Menras should be released, their reaction, according to their own account, proved that they had not caused themselves to be thrown into prison because of some passing aberration. They genuinely wanted to share the fate of the many whom they considered patriots and heroes. They did not want to leave their friends and brothers behind, and refused to do so. But their more realistic political friends, doubtless communists who considered their decision politically useless, persuaded them to accept expulsion from Vietnam, telling them what they expected of them after they had left South Vietnam. This is how they describe it in their book:

André and Jean-Pierre, you must leave! You must leave to bear witness. You must leave to tell about what you have seen here, in this prison; to tell about the tortures, the brutality, the murders. You must leave so that you may speak of the policy that aims at slowly killing our patriots. All these things have gone on for decades, and no one mentions them in the newspapers. You must leave to tell your tale, to bear witness. You shall be the spokesmen of the Vietnamese prisoners locked up in Thieu’s jail.

This is what they have been doing, in Europe as well as in the United States, perhaps less effectively than Don Luce, but inspired also by deep feeling for the many prisoners still kept in South Vietnam’s jails. The release of these prisoners can only be brought about if the truth about their numbers and their wretched lives is no longer ignored. Every effort must be made to free all of them in the interests of justice and humanity. Moreover, only if the press and Congress induce the United States government to force Thieu to open his jails and detention camps is there a chance of developing a political force capable of mobilizing sufficient mass support for a regime dominated neither by Thieu nor by communism in South Vietnam.

In spite of my more than fifteen years as a constant and concerned student of Vietnamese history and contemporary affairs, I do not feel qualified to make a prediction about the eventual outcome of the struggle for control of the entire country. But among the many highly experienced noncommunist nationalists I interviewed, there was not one who did not agree with a former member of the government who told me that without a free political life, of which the release of all anti-Thieu political prisoners is a main condition, South Vietnam’s present government will sooner or later collapse, and the South be reunited with the North under a communist-dominated regime.

  1. *

    See NYR, May 31, 1973, for Luce’s full statement.